Rabbi Bernard Fox



“During the Second Temple period, the Hellenist kings made decrees against the Jewish people, suppressed their religion, did not allow them to learn Torah or to perform mitzvot, seized their money and daughters, entered the Temple and broke down its walls, and defiled the objects of purity.  And, they greatly afflicted the Jewish people and oppressed them tremendously until the G-d of their fathers had mercy upon them, provided salvation and saved them from their hands.  And the house of the Hashmonaim – High Priests – triumphed over them, killed them and provided the Jewish people with salvation from their hands.  And they established a king from among the Priests.  Kingship returned to the Jewish people for more than two hundred years – until the destruction of the Second Temple.”  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chanukah 3:1)

Maimonides describes the events that are recalled through the celebration of Chanukah.  He explains that the Hellenist kings ruled the land of Israel and the Jewish people.  Their reign was characterized by comprehensive religious oppression and material persecution.  Eventually, the Hashmonaim – a family of Kohanim – led a rebellion and overthrew the oppressors.  They reestablished the Jewish kingship.  They appointed a king from their own family.  The kingdom that they established lasted for over two hundred years and only ended with the destruction of the Second Temple.

It is clear from Maimonides’ comments that he views the two hundred year rule by the kings of the Hashmonaim positively.  Maimonides’ inclusion of this assessment in his discussion of Chanukah also seems to indicate that the longevity of their rule is somehow relevant to the celebration of Chanukah.

There are a number of problems with Maimonides’ position.  One of these problems is his indication that the longevity of the rule of the Hashmonaim kings is relevant to the celebration of Chanukah.  It is not immediately obvious why this factor should be worthy of note.  The Jewish people were oppressed by the Hellenists – both spiritually and materially.  Hashem had mercy upon His people and through the Hashmonaim, he rescued them from oppression.  This seems to be an adequate reason to give thanks to Hashem through the observance of a celebration.  Why is the length of rule of the Hashmonaim relevant?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l offers and interesting explanation of Maimonides’ position.  He bases his explanation upon a teaching from the Talmud.  Like Chanukah, Purim recalls the salvation of the Jewish people from an enemy determined to destroy them.  Haman carefully planned the destruction of the Jewish people.  Through Hashem’s intervention, Mordechai and Esther succeeded in defeating his designs and destroyed the enemies of the Jewish people.  It would seem appropriate to commemorate the salvation of the Jewish people with the recitation of the Hallel.  Why is the Hallel not recited on Purim?  The Talmud offers three possible explanations.  First, the events of Purim occurred in the exile.  The Hallel is not recited on miracles that occur in the exile.  Second, the Hallel is not needed on Purim.  The reading of the Meggilah replaces the Hallel.  Third, the salvation commemorated by Purim was not complete.  The Jewish people were rescued from Haman.  However, they remained in exile – subjects of the heathen king.[1]

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Maimonides, apparently, adopts the Talmud’s final explanation.  Hallel is not recited on Purim because the Jewish people remained the subjects of a foreign king.  Rav Soloveitchik contends that Maimonides extrapolated from this ruling a general principle.  The Hallel cannot be recited to commemorate any miracle that does not result in complete salvation – leaving the Jewish people under the role of a foreign king.  Based on this interpretation of Maimonides’ position, Rav Soloveitchik suggests that we can understand Maimonides’ reference to the two hundred years of rule of the Hashmonaim kings.

According to Rav Soloveitchik, Maimonides is applying his understanding of the Talmud to the practice of reciting the Hallel on Chanukah.  The Hallel is recited on each day of Chanukah.  This is only consistent with Maimonides’ understanding of the Talmud’s ruling if Chanukah commemorates a complete salvation.  A complete salvation must restore the Jewish leadership.  Had the Hashmonaim not succeeded in reestablishing Jewish rule, it would not be appropriate to recite the Hallel on Chanukah.  But, because the Hashmonaim did reign over the Jewish people for over two hundred years, the requirements for the recitation of the Hallel are met and the Hallel is recited on Chanukah.[2]

Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of Maimonides’ comments resolves another problem.  Nachmanides comments that the Hashmonaim did not have the right to elevate themselves to the position of kings.  He explains that once Hashem chose David as king, the institution of kingship was awarded to David and his descendants in perpetuity.  In assuming the kingship, the Hashmonaim were usurpers.  Nachmanides argues that they were severely punished for this trespass.[3]  Of course, it is possible that Maimonides does not agree  with Nachmanides’ position regarding the prohibition against the appointment of a king from outside of the family of David.  Maimonides seems to indicate that although kingship will ultimately return to the family of David, it is not inappropriate to appoint a king from another family or shevet, if necessary.  The Torah instructs us only that the kingship cannot be permanently transferred to another family.[4]

However, according to Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of Maimonindes’ comments, there is no reason to assume that Maimonindes disagrees with Nachmanides’ position.  It is possible that Maimonides would agree that the Hashmonaim were not entitled to assume the mantle of kingship.  Maimonides is not endorsing their behavior.  Instead, he is dealing with a different issue – was the salvation commemorated by Chanukah complete.  The complete salvation required for the recitation of the Hallel requires the reestablishment of Jewish rule.  This was done by the Hashmonaim.  Whether they were correct in their behavior or were usurpers is not relevant to this issue.  Irregardless of the advisability of their behavior, kingship was restored.

Rav Soloveitchik points out that there is a serious problem with his interpretation of Maimonides’ comments.  Maimonides discusses the omission of the Hallel from the observances of Purim.  According to Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of Maimonides’ position, we would expect Maimonides to explain that the Hallel is not recited on Purim because the salvation commemorated by Purim was not complete.  However, Maimonides does not offer this explanation.  Instead, he explains that the Hallel is not recited on Purim because the reading of the Meggilah takes its place.[5]

In order to attempt to resolve this problem, it is important to define the question more clearly.  Maimonides’ comments in regard to Purim seem to indicate that the deficiency of the salvation commemorated by Purim does not prevent the recitation of the Hallel.  In fact, there is an obligation to recite Hallel on Purim.  However, this obligation is fulfilled through the reading of the Meggilah.  In contrast, his comments in regard to Chanukah seem to indicate that an incomplete salvation would not have sufficed for the recitation of the Hallel.  How can this contradiction be resolved?

The Talmud explains that, in general, when the Jewish people are rescued from an affliction, we are required to recite the Hallel.[6]  In other words, the Talmud is identifying two elements that together create an obligation to recite the Hallel.  First, there must be an affliction.  Second, the Jewish people must be rescued from the affliction.  It follows that in order to determine whether the redemption is complete, it is necessary to determine the nature of the affliction that the redemption addresses.  For example, if the Jewish people are faced with religious persecution, then redemption would be defined as the rescue from this religious persecution.  Alternatively, if the Jewish people were confronted with annihilation, then redemption would be defined as the rescue of the nation from this destruction.

Let us apply the same analysis to the events commemorated by Purim and Chanukah respectively.  Haman’s design was to totally destroy the Jewish people.  Redemption from this affliction would be defined as the rescue of the nation from Haman’s elaborate plans to destroy the nation.  In contrast, the Hellenists did not wish to destroy the Jewish people.  They practiced religious persecution and they attempted to subjugate the Jewish people.  Rescue from this affliction would be defined as the cessation of religious persecution and the freeing of the nation from foreign domination. 

As Rav Soloveitchik explains, Maimonides maintains that the Hallel is not recited for a salvation that is not complete.  But, the completeness of the salvation must be evaluated relative to the affliction.  The events commemorated by Purim represent a complete salvation.  The Jewish people were in exile.  Exile is a tragedy.  But, Purim is not designed to recall our return to the land of Israel.  Instead, it recalls that Haman wished to destroy the nation.  Hashem intervened and defeated Haman.  Was this rescue complete?  When evaluated relative to the affliction, it is clear that it was.   It is not relevant that the Jewish people remained in exile, ruled by a foreign king.  The tragedy of exile is not the affliction that is recalled on Purim.    However, the events commemorated by Chanukah occurred in the land of Israel.  The affliction consisted of religious persecution and an attempt to subjugate the people in their own land.  In this instance, the definition of salvation includes not only the cessation of religious persecution, but, also, the restoration of the independence of the nation and its regaining of freedom from foreign domination.  In such an instance, the reestablishment of Jewish kingship is an essential element of the salvation.  If the Hashmonaim had succeeded in bringing an end to religious prosecution, but had failed to rescue the nation from foreign domination, the salvation could not have been regarded as complete.

This explains Maimonides’ position.  Maimonides maintains that only a complete salvation obligates us in the recitation of the Hallel.  On Purim, the salvation was complete.  The Jewish people were saved from destruction at the hands of Haman.  That they remained in exile does not negate the completeness of their salvation from Haman.  Therefore, Maimonides rules that Purim requires the recitation of the Hallel, and this obligation is fulfilled through the reading of the Meggilah.  However, the salvation of Chanukah was only completed through the reestablishment of Jewish rule in the land of Israel.  Therefore, the restoration of the kingship is cited by Maimonides as an essential element of the salvation.

[1] Mesechet Meggilah 14a.

[2] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Harerai Kedem , volume 1, p 272.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 49:10.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:7-9.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Meggilah 3:6.

[6] Mesechet Pesachim 111a.